Interdisciplinary education for our students

Dr Greta Bosch (Associate ProfessorIMG_0075.JPG in Law) hosted a colloquium on the benefits of interdisciplinary education at tertiary level on Monday 11 July 2018.  The session, entitled “Sharing experiences to help transform practice: Interdisciplinary education for our students” at the Academic Practice Network addressed two aims.  First, exploring the powerful learning experience for students and the value of interdisciplinarity generally.  Secondly, sharing the module lead experiences from a truly interdisciplinary module pilot run by the Law School in 2017/18 (combining students from Law, Business and Psychology).

Greta began by analysing the University of Exeter’s Education Strategy 2014-2020, especially focusing on Aim 6, “Multi-disciplinary learning for global challenges”.  Greta focused on the difficulties of defining “multi-“ or “interdiciplinarity” in this context, and noted that elements of Aim 6 (especially “To make learning from more than one discipline a feature of all programmes”) are close to her own definition of these terms.  Greta explained how she had worked to define both “multi-“ and “interdiciplinary”, yet noted that the two terms are often used inconsistently and often conflated to refer to the same idea.  Greta stressed a more delineated use of these terms, where:

  • “Multidisciplinary education” refers to several disciplines set alongside each other during learning. An example may be a module where one class considers an issue through the lens of one discipline, and the following class considers it through a different discipline’s lens.
  • “Interdisciplinary education” reefers to two or more disciplines being integrated during study. An interesting use of this format see students focus on real-world problems (in a problem-based learning model), where students have to blend their use of various disciplines together (their knowledge, methodologies, skills and so on) to address these problems at a deeper level.  Blending the disciplines becomes key.

The pilot module focused on integrating disciplines in this “interdisciplinary” manner, and focused on equality and diversity in employment law.  This topic facilitated the module drawing upon and blending three different disciplines:

  • The content was principally taught through a Law lens
  • The topic was in a Business context, and had an organisational dimension (e.g. how can the law be implemented in an organisational sense?)
  • The topic also had a significant Psychological element (e.g. how is the law interpreted by people?)

Students were drawn from these three disciplines, and readings and resources employed from a broad range of areas and disciplines.  Students were encouraged to work so as to gain a broad understanding of the area, develop new skills, and prioritise critical thinking which transcends their home discipline.  The module developed students’ group working skills, their complex problem solving skills, and their ability to influence policy.  It attempts to broaden students’ horizons from purely academic and theoretical work, to real-world matters (issues important for graduate employability and society at large).

Student feedback was gained via Accelerate and in-class paper-based means, as well as a self-reflective survey at the end of the course.  The latter had a c.90% response rate; students describe having dreaded the group work at first, but later came to enjoy it (especially as they could see beyond their discipline, and develop transferable skills).  Staff also gain benefits from interdisciplinary teaching, including closer links between departments and the potential for further research, publications and policy impact.  Yet challenges remain, and these are largely structural (e.g. which department pays for what?) and logistical (timetabling across many programmes).



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